At 4:42 on the afternoon of March 7, the Metro lines of Caracas, in the Venezuelan capital, went out. The passengers walked out of the tunnels and, out in the street, saw that the traffic lights were off, that communications did not work, that the bus stops were beginning to be crowded. They thought that the service would be restored in hours. But in the control center of Guayana, 576 kilometers south of Caracas, where the generation and distribution of 70% of the energy consumed by the nation is controlled, they knew something was wrong: “That day I was on duty, I went in on Thursday and I left on Sunday,” says room supervisor César Salazar.
“Here you have the supervision and control of 75 or 80% of the energy consumed throughout the country,” says César from the offices of Corpoelec in Puerto Ordaz, in Bolívar state. From his office, the 765 KV trunk network is managed, which is called the most important transmission line of the National Electric System (SEN), which crosses the entire Venezuelan territory.
The engineer, with almost 20 years of experience, remembers that the system had experienced blackouts in the last 30 years, but says that this time “it was completely different”. “Look, there are comrades who say that to see a total collapse of the system, there must be something extraordinary, and there was .”
Meanwhile, in Caracas, Darwin Briceño, from the center of the national office, remembers that at 4:42 in the afternoon all the alarms of the system suddenly began to sound. “The light went out in the building, I tried to call, but the communications started to fail and what saved me was that I had brought my personal cell phone: that’s when I started to coordinate.”
The worst was when he was able to communicate with the Guayana office and was told that the generation of Guri, Macagua and Caruachi, the main hydroelectric plants of the South American nation, had fallen. “There I knew that it would fall too us to restore the electrical system from scratch”.
On the day of the general failure, Hernán Conde, a maintenance professional for lines and transformers, was on duty in Guri. “It was the first time that I lived a situation like this,” he recalls, having worked in the company for 31 years, former Edelca and current Corpoelec. “I do not know at what stage the investigation of what happened is, but for us it was something from outside, external, ” he says.
Unable to compensate
On Thursday, March 7, the then Minister of Electric Energy, Luis Motta Domínguez, described the event as “sabotage” and ensured that, after the “attack” on the Guri hydroelectric power plant, in a few hours the service would be restored. The sun set and the country was still dark.
After 8:13 pm that day, on state radio and television, the first statements of the Minister of Communication and Information, Jorge Rodríguez, were heard. From Miraflores Palace, he denounced “the sabotage perpetrated against the system of generation and hydroelectric distribution of the Guri”, a fact that he blamed on the sectors that oppose the government of President Nicolás Maduro. At that time, the service had been restored only in part of the east of Venezuela.
#AHORA @LMOTTAD Sabotearon la generacion en Guri… Esto es parte de la guerra eléctrica contra el Estado. ¡No lo permitiremos! Estamos trabajando para recuperar el servicio @mppeevzla @dcabellor @NicolasMaduro @PresidencialVen @teleSURtv @VTVcanal8 @ActualidadRT @CorpoelecNE
— CORPOELEC Informa (@CORPOELECinfo) March 7, 2019
Although the authorities tried to transmit tranquility to the population, tension was on the rise in the Guayana office center. Dalida Liccioni, an engineer with 25 years in the company and attached to the general management of projects , recounts her shock with the situation: “It is always a partial failure, one applied the scheme of separation of areas,” she says to explain the procedure in which the affected area of the interconnected system is “isolated” to repair any damage, without affecting the entire network.
In Venezuela, the dependence on the hydroelectric system has been constant, although it has been accentuated in recent years. In Guri, the fourth largest hydroelectric plant in the world, there are the second most powerful generators in Latin America, after those in the Itaipu binational dam, between Paraguay and Brazil. However, the lame leg of the system is that the thermal generation park is currently well below its potential. Therefore, at the time of the blackout, there was no energy to compensate.
“We have to put a lot of investment in the thermal to be able to free the system and compensate: Temozulia (Zulia), Planta Centro (Carabobo) and Tacoa (Vargas), mainly, before we used 75% of the hydroelectric power plant, but now it’s much more, ” insists Liccioni.
The installed capacity of the Bajo Caroni hydroelectric plants in Venezuela is around 15,160 MW (Macagua 3,000MW, Caruachi 2,160MW, and Guri 10,000), but not all are active, so the need to have the thermal generation ready is compelling. However, technicians speculate that the unilateral coercive measures applied by the US against Caracas, as well as the economic crisis afflicting the nation, can indefinitely delay that action.
The only ‘advantage’ of the failure occurring in March of this year was that, due to the situation across the country, much of industry was paralyzed and electricity consumption was lower. At its best, Venezuela required around 18,000 MW per day; At present, the demand is supplied with about 12,000 MW. According to data recently released by the Venezuelan Central Bank, the economy contracted 47.6% between 2013 and 2018.
After the March 7 outage, the service began to be restored the next day, but the system was not completely reliable. The technicians managed to energize a good part of the lines even without the electronic ‘brain’, and one of them was Freddy Rodríguez.
Freddy arrived at the control center on the 8th. “I stated that we had to restore the system in a very safe way, it was slow but necessary so that we would not fall back. We did not have at that moment the supervision of the computer systems, everything was off, but hey, I’ve been here almost 28 years and the other people who were with me also have experience, so we coordinated to work without supervision, we did it blindly but with knowhow, and that’s how we got to [send power] to San Gerónimo [Guárico state, in the center of the country] “.
Faced with an event of this magnitude, the electrical system had to be restored from scratch. Therefore, the first action that the technicians undertook was to start with the Guri distribution patios, which is what the 765 KV system supplies. From there, there are three lines that go to Malena, still in the state of Bolívar, and link up with the San Gerónimo substation (Guárico). At that point, the distribution continues to Santa Teresa del Tuy (Miranda) and La Arenosa (Carabobo), in the center of the country. The maneuver was risky and there were several failures, but finally it was achieved. The following Saturday, however, another failure knocked it all down.
“Frustration is traumatic, because outages are caused by things that you can not control, an external failure that knocks you out of the interconnected system because it is weak, is something that escapes your hands … On Saturday the whole supervising system died ” , recalls César Salazar.
The Fantastic Four’
The engineer Juan Carlos Pérez is a dapper man. He speaks slowly, he does not exalt himself and his tone of voice lacks the characteristic decibels of the inhabitants of the hot lands of the Bolívar state. He has more than 30 years of experience in the electrical sector and is one of the most authoritative voices in terms of generation systems. But at the time the failure occurred, he did not work at Corpoelec .
But on Sunday, March 10, three days after the first blackout, a military intelligence commando appeared at the door of his house. They told him that he should accompany them because he had been called by the Executive Vice President, Delcy Rodríguez: ” I did not have much choice there, ” says Juan Carlos, and he laughs. Along with him, the Government had requested the presence of three other comrades to support the rescue of the system.
“We wanted to divide the task between the hydroelectric plants, but she [Rodríguez] insisted that we go to Caruachi alone because she had detected something.” We arrived and we found that there were no machines in service, that they were all stopped, we woke up there and on Monday we had five available machines, since then, the recovery maneuvers were backed by the Caruachi frequency control, that is, Delcy’s intuition was correct. Our presence allowed no further delay. The other thing we suggested was that the command control of the system be in Puerto Ordaz, because she was there, and those two actions allowed the system to be recovered. “The other three comrades summoned by the Venezuelan vice president were Antonio Martini, François Morillo and Luis Dimas. Among the workers, they were baptized as ‘the fantastic four’.
“When we came to address the failure, we realized that our computerized control centers have external links activated.”
Juan Carlos Pérez, engineer and expert in electrical generation systems.
Perez explains that the structural problem is in the way in which the national electrical system was conceived: “When Guri’s project began in the 60’s, the Government of that time was left with a design that was advised by a French company. There were already studies on the energy potential of the Caroní River, which exceeded 20,000 MW, and because of that, it was considered that the pillar of the system was based on the water source”.
The detail is that the whole system was designed so that the energy of Bajo Caroní could be carried with reliability to the coastal areas, in the center of the country, where the ports are located, and on the edge of the companies that exploited the iron ore and gold, without taking into account the rural and urban development of the country: “It is a look of a country that is only destined to supply resources, at that time, with the US as the main buyer,” Pérez points out.
The question repeats itself: what happened? The testimonies collected by this means point to a version that combines external sabotage and the deterioration of part of the system for investments not fulfilled in time. The majority blames former Minister Motta Domínguez for that situation.
The Venezuelan opposition said, at first, that the blackout was caused by a fire, something that the consulted experts discard. Liccioni emphasizes that such events, when they occur, are relatively easy to tackle and do not cause the paralysis of the country’s three hydroelectric plants.
Juan Carlos Pérez, for his part, considers that there is an element that defeats that hypothesis and backs the possibility that it was a coordinated attack: “When we came to address the failure, we realized that our computerized control centers have external links activated.” That is, they could be controlled from the outside.
“The technicians claim that these links could not be controlled, but those accesses are there, in this failure we saw things we had never seen, for example, that we energized a line with all the protocols and that, for no apparent reason, went out [of control]. Look, if there are techniques that cause atmospheric phenomena, interfering in a system like this is nothing, these lines can transmit signals of different frequencies, it can be a radio wave, that’s old technology. It’s called carrier waves, so an external and electromagnetic attack is totally possible,” says Pérez.
Another of the singularities was the impossibility of establishing communications. “Every good operator knows that without proper coordination it is impossible to stabilize an interconnected network, because any action you take affects the rest of the system. The coordinations were deactivated, which is why it was difficult for us to recover accurately, and there were connections and disconnections of unauthorized loads”, continues the engineer.
For Pérez, the last element that supports the thesis of sabotage is that the registers of system history were disconnected. “The fault recorders, located in very strategic points of the system, which are elements that record the behavior of the parameters to see them before, during and after any event, we found them disconnected and they were essential to understand what had happened”.
“We found all the fault recorders disconnected and they were essential to understand what had happened.”
Juan Carlos Pérez, engineer and expert in electrical generation systems.
A sabotage “by omission”
Antonio Martini was dismissed in 2015. At that time he was manager of the Simón Bolívar Hydroelectric Plant and, like Pérez and Morillo, he only appeared to collaborate when the personnel of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) went to look for him at his home.
“On Sunday they told us that in Caruachi the teams synchronized and then went out, ” says Antonio. That day they went to the dam, by orders of the vice president, and began to put the machines into operation. On Wednesday of the following week, the system was already more stable. However, on March 29, an even more serious situation forced them to resume positions in the country’s hydroelectric power plants. There was a fire in the Guri transmission yard and the loss of equipment was considerable.
“It was a difficult experience to see the deterioration of the company , because most of us were outside the sector, excluded from something to which we dedicated half of our lives,” says Martini. For him, his departure from the company was a ‘spite’ that lasted almost a year. Then he went to Brazil, founded a consulting firm and returned to Guyana in November of last year. Returning to the facilities after three years, recalled many things. “I did not think I was going to step on the Corpoelec building again, let alone go back to Guri, because of the conditions of this man [Motta Domínguez].”
“I just never knew why they fired me,” he insists. The dissatisfaction with the management of the former minister is a constant in the corridors of Corpoelec and the hydroelectric plants in Guayana. “We had almost four years of darkness”, they say to refer to the time when Motta Domínguez was in charge of the portfolio. For Martini, the blackout was a latent risk for several years.
“We understand the multiform war, but also the conditions of the system: three and a half years in which we knew about the deterioration. When we came to review it now, we found that the entire modernization program was stopped, that substations were not maintained on time, runner lines were not working. I, seeing the movements of Mr. Motta, I made a complaint and alerted that it seemed there was electrical strike being planned. For me, the sabotages are not only by external actions, but also by internal omissions” says the former manager of Guri.
“I, seeing Mr. Motta’s movements, made a complaint and alerted that it seemed that he was planning an electrical strike”
Antonio Martini, ex-manager of the plant in Guri
At that point almost all workers agree. César Salazar believes that the lesson learned is that maintenance measures can not be postponed until another collapse occurs: “The electrical system is similar to the human body, it is talking to you to take predictive, preventive, recuperative and corrective actions. With fever, what do you drink? Antibiotics. What has happened is that many things are not where they should be, nor have they been done as they should be done. ”
“We felt forgotten”
Although a good part of the electric service is recovered, there are areas of the country that continue with strong rationing, especially in the West, which remains in the ‘tail’ of the interconnected system. In Zulia state is where the most dramatic situation is lived.
There, the idea was that the thermoelectric park was active to be able to supply any deficit of the hydroelectric plants. However, the situation is critical because the plants that generate energy by fossil fuels are almost all out of service.
“We had the thermal park for these summer dates, but we knew that the system was not yet established,” recalls Jofre Padrino, responsible for monitoring and testing the plant in Guri. After the failure of March 7, he joined the work on the 11th of that month, along with retired staff of the Simón Bolívar hydroelectric plant, who took turns to do 24-hour watches next to the machines, with mats on the floor, until the restoration of the system was achieved.
“We felt forgotten. Here the salaries are so low that there was a huge migration of professionals from the electricity sector. ”
Jofre Padrino, responsible for the monitoring and testing of the plant in Guri
“Crews that were gone from the company were put in. The days were exhausting, but there was a lot of support from the institution, but what I do tell you is that we, before all this happened, felt forgotten. Here the salaries are so low that there was a huge migration of professionals from the electricity sector, many left the country or went to work in other areas,” says Jofre, who has 21 years of service in Guri and started working on the hydroelectric power plant because it was the dream of his life.
“Here the comrades talk about ‘my machines’ because they are like a child, an extension of oneself, I feel at home, so when we lost equipment it was very painful, many of us cried with rage, that was terrible.”
Jofre, like many of the workers, lives in the Guri camp, an area that now shows marked signs of deterioration. In the village, which is an hour’s drive from Puerto Ordaz, some 2,000 families live and what is in the vicinity are expanses of barren land, forest and the Bajo Caroni hydroelectric system. The complicated economic situation in Venezuela, accentuated by unilateral US sanctions, has eroded the quality of life to the point that in that area there are only two shops that speculate with the prices of the few products they sell.
The national Executive has given priority to the recovery of the national electrical system and workers have exposed the lags that must be addressed urgently to avoid another collapse. On April 1, President Maduro removed Motta Domínguez from his position and appointed Igor Gavidia as head of the portfolio, an electrical engineer graduated from the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), who in 2000 joined the discussion team for the drafting of the National Electric Service Law Project.
“The day that President Maduro broke the news that he was appointing a new minister of electric power, that’s where the people ‘now I can get on the job.’ One of the things we have now is to do the load flow analysis and stability, with engineers that analyze power systems, based on respect, trust and information security. There is still a lot to work on. Now, is all this recoverable? Of course,” says Martini.
Last Thursday, almost three months after the failure, Maduro appointed Freddy Brito Maestre as the new minister for Electric Power and president of Corpoelec, replacing Gavidia.
Translated by JRE/EF